CONSIDER THE admonition of St. Francis, who wrote in the first version of his rule: "We should have no more use or regard for money in any of its forms than for dust. The friars should be delighted to follow the lowliness and poverty of our lord Jesus Christ . . . They should be glad to live among social outcasts, among the poor and helpless, the sick and the lepers, and those who beg by the wayside."

As the 116th successor of St. Francis of Assisi, and the elected leader of the worldwide 20,000-member Order of Friars Minor that is celebrating the 800th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Father John Vaughn is ready for the inevitable question: If a Francis were out there now, would he join the Franciscans?

In the well-heated and comfortable visitors' parlor of Holy Name College, the spacious Franciscan seminary in Northeast Washington that rests on 22 acres of top-dollar real estate. It is highlighted by a 300-yard driveway of longer distance than the one that once led into Nelson Rockefeller's estate on Foxhall Road NW, Fr. Vaughn confesses the question does cause some squirming: "That's a question we keep asking ourselves. I don't know whether he would or not. My concern is that we keep on trying to respond to the gospels genuinely, as Francis did. If we are trying to imitate Jesus, the way he did, then the Lord will give us the brothers that we deserve."

Francis Bernadone, converted in his early 20s from a horse-soldier in the Assisian militia and dead at 45 from illness caught while praying in damp caves and wandering the countryside in cold weather, has been romanticized as a dreamer who talked pitter-patter to animals and danced in sunlit meadows as fat-kid cherubsplayed the heavenly harp above. But that is a trash heap of lore. In the war-ridden medieval Italian state in which he lived, Francis embodied a kindness that had no swooning to it. It made demands and called for risks. And over the eight centuries, Francis became history's most universally acclaimed Christian saint.

Fr. Vaughn, who is called a collegial "Father John" by the seminarians who pass him in the hallway outside the Holy Name parlor, is wearing the cocoa-brown robe, cowl, leather sandals and white cord-rope belt that have been the order's all-purpose garb for centuries. The habit is large for his thin frame, and as he walks he pulls up the sleeves as though his arms are gasping for air. He is cordial but reserved. He is not much given to coating his remarks with stories, being content to say that "they tell a story about St. Francis," but then skipping it in favor of explaining the Franciscan theory behind the story.

Fr. Vaughn, 51, a Californian, is only the second American to be the Minister General of the Franciscans. Italians have predominated, with a few Germans. After his ordination in 1955, he did pastoral work briefly in Guadalajara, Mexico. He taught and counseled at a Franciscan seminary in southern California until 1967 when the order sent him to Rome for further studies at the Gregorian University, Catholicism's seedbed for saints, popes and bishops. Only comers are chosen by religious orders for the Gregorian.

The order that Fr. Vaughn leads is second in size only to the Jesuits. At its peak in 1967, the Order of Friars Minor numbered 26,000. The loss of about 25 percent of the membership parallels the decreases found in most other orders. Unlike the followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits, the Franciscans are a family of orders--the Order of Friars Minor (the lesser brothers), Capuchins, Conventuals, Poor Clares, Third Order Regulars, Third Order Secular, Lutheran Franciscans and Anglican Franciscans--that totals 1.5 million.As Oscar Wilde said, St. Francis has been the only Christian since Christ. The Franciscans are historically unique because no other spiritual movement begun by one person has lasted as long or spread as far. The spreading has become an alleluia chorus of voices so disparate that if historians want to locate a small "c" catholicism, they need only examine the writings of those who publicly meditated on virtues of St. Francis.

When he was dying, Vladimir Lenin, in a conversation with a Hungarian priest whom he knew from his boyhood, confessed that "I have been mistaken. It was necessary, I suppose, to liberate the multitude of oppressed people, but our method only provoked other oppressions . . . To save our Russia, what we needed--but it is too late now--was ten Francises of Assisi."

Dante, born 39 years after the death of Francis, eulogized him in the "Paradiso." Chesterton called him the ungloomy ascetic. In Kazantzakis' fictional biography, Francis was driven by such universal love that he told his followers, "God forgive me, but I feel sorry even for Satan." Arnold Toynbee said the West went wrong by pursuing the values of Francis' father, the money-loving Pietro Bernadone, and not the son. For Albert Camus, Francis "justifies those who have a taste for happiness." Dorothy Day exclaimed that "more than ever I am convinced that the solution lies only in the gospel and in such a leader as St. Francis." Matthew Arnold said that "more than any man since the primitive age, Francis fit religion for popular use . . . Poverty and suffering are the condition of the peoples, the multitude, the immense majority of mankind; and it was toward this people that his soul yearned." Francis Thompson, Vachel Lindsay, Longfellow, Wordsworth and Evelyn Underhill wrote poems about him. When another poet, Pope John Paul II, visited Assisi shortly after his election he said he came out of a need for "the intercession of St. Francis." "The Saint" was painted by Rembrandt, Bellini and El Greco. In San Francisco, the city of Francis, a statue stands that is like no other in the world. It is St. Francis of the Guns, sculpted out of metal that came in part from melted handguns that citizens turned in after the shooting of Robert Francis Kennedy in 1968.

Films, plays and television documentaries have been done, but nothing in the media has matched the universal acclaim given to the Marvel comic book, "Francis: Brother of the Universe." Marvel, the firm that puts out "The Hulk," "The Spectacular Spider-Man," "Star Wars," and "Doctor Strange," reports that in three printings in 14 months, St. Francis has sold 425,000 copies. "That's a very, very impressive sale," says a Marvel official. "We're doing so well with it, and unexpectedly, that we'll be doing more religious comic books in the future." Translations into the customary foreign languages have been made, and a Franciscan friar in South Africa reports that a local publisher is working on a Zulu version.

A lesser but still significant publishing event is the current issue of Sojourners magazine. Both the cover and most of the copy is devoted to St. Francis. The editor, Jim Wallis, a midwestern evangelical Protestant whose contributing editors include Daniel Berrigan and Sen. Mark Hatfield, tells of his reaction to the Franco Zeffirelli film, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon": "I left the theater stunned and speechless. On the way home in the dark car, I quietly began to weep. Never before had I encountered a life so consumed with the gospel, a man so on fire with the love of God, a disciple so single-mindedly focused on following after Jesus . . . The evangelical poverty of Francis had evangelized me to the depths of my soul. I immediately began to question everything about my life . . . I cried that night because my faith seemed so small and weak when compared to his. I wondered what my life was counting for."

What Wallis felt is similar to what is said by large numbers of people who are served by Franciscans in all parts of the world today. Compared with most other religious orders, they appear to be quiet and mostly out of sight. The Jesuits have priests who can be like a string of firecrackers with their glamorous poppings--giving interviews about how they counsel famous senators in their divorces, being available to Washington hostesses for dinner parties. But the Franciscans have so many members serving society's outcasts that they seem to be the one modern religious group most serious about self-improvement. They don't need to be reminded about the apparent contradictions between the accumulation of possessions and the demands of Francis to be absolutely free of material goods. Religious orders in the late 20th century are tense with a conflict that will never be adequately resolved: Where is the line between owning possessions and being possessed by ownings?

That thought was in Fr. Vaughn's mind when he said that "in principle, we try to avoid the ownership of property. In practice, I'd say it's a struggle. It's a struggle to try and really make that sincere. In civil law, many, many times, we do own property . . . But we have to try and own that property in the sense that it's a responsibility we have to people. We try not to use it and not have it as a means of power, but rather as a way of serving people."

Fr. Vaughn's visit to Washington from the headquarters in Rome was to help the community at Holy Name College observe its 50th anniversary. Fr. Vaughn, like other Franciscans, concelebrates mass daily and joins his colleagues for morning and evening devotions. "I spend some time in private prayer, as well," he says. "A lot of times when I go walking, I say the rosary. I make the Stations of the Cross sometimes. It's because I was brought up in those things."

That upbringing was in a Catholic family in Santa Ana, Calif. His earliest years were in a Franciscan parish. He recalls that the Franciscan friars loomed large in his boyhood world. They dominated California's history. In his school books, "the figure of the friar was a hero figure. He was the one who came to do good, endured all sorts of hardship. A lot of romanticism was there, and I think that pulled me along, to the time when it was no longer romantic but it was something I still wanted."

He remembers one priest, Friar Charles, from grammar school. "He used to come to hear the confessions of the sisters a couple of times of year." The gentleness of the friar was an overpowering example: "I wanted to be like him."

In his sermon at Holy Name Jubilee mass Fr. Vaughn reflected the themes of pease and social justice that have dominated the thinking of the popes in the last 20 years. "The church is obliged to a deep reflection and commitment, so that the new culture now emerging may be evangelized in depth, true values acknowledged, the rights of men and women defended and justice promoted in the very structures of society . . . May God grant that we be men of great desires."

If the desires are not fulfilled, the Franciscans are at least aware of the dangers of portfolios and buildings. Fr. Roy Gasnick, one of the order's most articulate members, and who accompanied Fr. Vaughn to Washington, said that "Francis bothers us. Owning property bothers us. Some of our larger houses, like Holy Name College, are embarrassments for us today. They symbolize a lifestyle that we are trying to disassociate ourselves from."

The breadth of the disassociation is measurable by examining the current work of some Franciscans. In Chicago, Fr. dePaul Genska works with female prostitutes. He calls it "a ministry of friendship." For some of the women, it means helping them get medical or legal assistance, finding baby-sitters for their children or merely going to their birthday parties or holiday celebrations, like Christmas. "They have the same sorrows and joys that we do," Fr. Genska says.

As a Franciscan among the Magdalens, Fr. Genska's ministry has taken him to unlikely places. In 1976, he was an invited speaker to the first international convention of prostitutes, sponsored by Margo St. James of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). "I was the only man invited to speak to the group," the priest recalls. "I was trying at the time--and am still trying now--to get church authorities to open up to this kind of ministry. So I asked some of the bishops to come to the convention with me. But they declined. It's too bad, because they would have learned that Margo St. James is an intelligent person. She was open enough to let me talk at her convention, but do we invite her to talk at ours? Not yet. When will we become a truly universal church and listen to everyone?"

Fr. Genska, who lives in a small room at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, began teaching a course on female prostitution in the spring of 1980. Twenty-three theological students enrolled. This year, 50 students are in the course. The prostitutes are a suffering and demeaned people, the priest says, and no one, least of all the church, has a right to ignore them.

In Washington, one of the city's quietly influential clergymen is Fr. Sean O' Malley, a Capuchin who is the director of the archdiocese's ministry to some 100,000 Spanish and Portuguese-speaking immigrants. "Washington really reflects what is happening in Latin America," he says. "Every time there is a problem in one country--El Salvador, Cuba, Guatemala--we start to see people from those countries turning up here. It's a reflection of the violence and economic repression in their homelands."

Fr. O'Malley, who works out of the Spanish Catholic Center in Mount Pleasant, has an apostolate that includes adult language courses for more than 1,000 students, a Spanish newspaper--Pregonero--which has a circulation of 10,000, an employment agency from which 4,000 people are placed in jobs every year and social service programs for 20,000 clients. He stays in the background most of the time, catching the public eye mostly by accident. He became a celebrated figure for many in the Spanish community in May 1978 when a congregation of Argentinian generals and admirals stormed out of mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral because they objected to the priest's sermon. Fr. O'Malley had the effrontery to quote papal teaching on human rights.

Internationally, the most inventive and best-known Franciscan is Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of Sao Paolo, Brazil. With 12 million Catholics, he leads the largest archdiocese in the world's largest Catholic country. Few of the West's church or secular leaders have been as adamant as Arns in siding with the oppressed, from labor union activists who have been killed and tortured by the Brazilian police to squatters and small farmers in the rural regions of Amazonia being run off the land.

When Arns visited Washington last June, he took the pulpit of one of the city's poorest parishes to deliver a Franciscan sermon. He spoke of how the church in Brazil is undergoing a conversion. The speech has created resentment, he said. The wealthy and powerful "want us to bless their banks and factories, to approve their unjust wage laws, to celebrate the days they were victorious over the poor."

In the United States, few acts of mercy to the hungry have been as successful as the daily 7 a.m. bread line outside the Franciscan church on West 31st Street in New York City. More than 300 men and women appear in the line every morning, with the numbers increasing as unemployment rises and budget cuts are made in housing and food programs. Two sandwiches and a cup of coffee are provided by the friars.

The line began in 1930, a small but immediate response to the Crash of '29. The depression has never eased for those on the bread line. Last September, a group called St. Francis Friends of the Poor raised enough money to purchase a 99-room residence on East 24th Street for the homeless.

In the minds of many Franciscans, these works of mercy and rescue are little more than faltering steps to keep pace with the spirituality and humanism of St. Francis. But compared with many other organizations--from highly visible groups like the Mormon church to the coalition of electronic fundamentalist preachers--Franciscanism is a burst of energy that neither time nor the passing fashions of secular politics can truncate. If the Franciscans of the late 20th century pause from their ministries in the U.S.--they run several colleges and universities, a larger number of high schools, several hospitals and several hundred parishes--it is to be self-critical in an all-consuming way that leaves little left over for scorning the failures of others. In 1973, when leaders of the order met in a general chapter in Madrid, a statement of remarkable candor was issued about the need to back up words with actions: "What has been said for society also applies, in part, to our mission within the Church. If we truly live according to the gospel in faith, mutual love, poverty, and authority as service, we can be a leaven of evangelical challenge and non-complacency in her midst. This is a task not to be taken lightly . . . To content ourselves with a purely verbal protest would be sheer hypocrisy."

Perhaps subconsciously, this may account for Fr. Vaughn's understated criticism of the current policies of the Reagan administration. He agreed that his priests and brothers see the effects daily of these policies, from the New York City homeless to the parishes in Central America where more than 300 Franciscans are at work. "As a private citizen of the United States, and also as a Franciscan, I think that many of the administration's policies are wrong. They are certainly going in the wrong direction . . . Supporting military governments in Central America, providing arms to maintain some of those governments is wrong. The buildup of nuclear arms is wrong. I am glad to see our bishops speaking out against it."

This is a "verbal protest" routinely heard of late. But Fr. Vaughn, aware that by the standards of Franciscanism he and the 20,000 men he leads may also be accused of "going in the wrong direction" because the order is not zealous as Francis was zealous, levels criticism with little noticeable ardor. It is clear that criticizing politicians is a ministry Fr. Vaughn views as better left to others who have the cerebral skills for it.

It is a position that St. Francis would be comfortable with. He was the one who told his charges that books cause trouble, that knowledge leads to pride. A novice who could read came to him once to ask permission to own a prayer book and was given a rousing no.

It was one of the many negatives that Francis issued toward the end of his life. In the iconolatry that lingers from the Victorian era, which preferred St. Francis of the Birdbath to St. Francis, the harsh disciplinarian who dressed in tatters, it is forgotten that he was a complicated man who was often heedless of the ordinary needs of other people. He could be the gentle lover of animals and the kindly comforter of roadside beggars, but this, wrote John Holland Smith, one of the more clear-headed Francis biographers, was "when it suited him. But he could also be ruthless in defending his own vision and pitiless in making either his own brothers or outsiders feel and look like fools, if he thought that would serve his ends."

At heart, Francis was an institutionalist--the odd man out who knew that for his commitment to last beyond his own times he would need to be the odd man in. A free spirit can be freer when backed by an institutional structure. When local bishops chased Francis out of town for his ragtag ways, he sought out the bishop's bishop, Pope Innocent III. This was a man who dined on lemons and called his clergy dogs, appealing virtues to Francis. When the pope sanctioned the order, he changed it from what looked like a band of roving schismatics into the ambassadors of God's succor. They weren't free-lancers. They had a base.

The institutional structure, Fr. Vaughn said, is necessary but only as a means to efficiency, not a substitute for it. "The institutional structure can serve and preserve the Franciscan spirit. But if you expect the institution to give you a Francis, to make you into a Francis, perhaps you need to grow up a little. It just doesn't work that way. In a certain sense, I don't want to be like St. Francis. That's a daring statement, I guess. But what I mean is I think I'm doing more honor to Francis when I look at him and am animated and inspired and enflamed to follow Christ as he did. But not in the sense that I want to sneeze when Francis sneezes. The way to imitate Francis is to start from where he started, and that is to see God's love as revealed in Christ, and let your life be a response to that love. The historic Francis--his words, his examples--will always be a privileged place for us to develop as Franciscans. But becoming a Franciscan friar minor is a process of living the Gospel by living in obedience without property and with chastity, the way Francis did, and the way he outlined it for his brothers."

The "outline" is best understood in a reading of the Rule of 1221, a revision of an earlier rule that was a brief, almost skimpy, collection of Biblical texts and pious commentary. The document lacks the practicality of the older Benedictine Rule, which sets out the details on eating and sleeping, and it is well below the soaring mysticism of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. Its power is in its directness: "As they go about the country, the friars should take nothing with them." "All the friars without exception are forbidden to wield power to authority." "Our friends are those who for no reason cause us trouble and suffering, shame or injury, pain or torture, even martyrdom and death. It is these we must love, and love very much . . . "

The words represent an idealism that Francis accused himself of never even coming near. The virtue of the Rule of 1221 is that it can be read in 1981 with no loss in the power of its simplicity. As more than a few Franciscans in the field will say, it can be read on the way to the bread line, to a convention of prostitutes, or before preaching a sermon to some dictators.